Autumn colors in the San Juan Mountains were amazing in the fall of 2021, especially at the end of September through the first week in October. I was fortunate enough to spend a week photographing the green, gold, orange and red colors from McClure Pass to Cimarron, Owl Creek Pass to the Dallas Divide, and over to Ophir and Telluride. I met up with a friend for a few days, took some hikes in the rain, enjoyed some gorgeous sunsets, and finally found the Dancing Aspen after years of searching. Here are a few of that week’s highlights.
On my drive down from Winter Park, I decided to take the route leading over McClure Pass. The winding Hwy 133 curved its way south past Carbondale, along the Crystal River, through Redstone, and finally up and over the majestic McClure Pass. The colors seem to explode in reds and golds as the road climbs, finally peaking at a worthy overlook.
After a quick stop there, I made my way back down the pass and over to Montrose. I picked up a friend from the airport there, then we headed down to the Cimarron Valley to photograph some familiar sights as well as some newfound gems. That first late afternoon storms rolled through the valley, drenching the land in rain. However, often after these storms the sky can produce nice sunsets. With this in mind, we headed over to Rowdy Lake and Clear Lake. Clear Lake had been one of my goals this trip. It has a beautiful row of Aspen along the bank and when the water is calm, the reflections can’t get much better. While we drove to the trailhead that begins at Rowdy Lake, the rains poured on us. After a bumpy ride up the 4WD road, we reached the parking area. With a light sprinkle still falling, we slogged our way along an easy, soaked path for about ¾ of a mile to reach Clear Lake. The water was calm, the clouds were breaking, and our efforts were rewarded over the next hour as the sky continuously changed – and all the time there wasn’t a hint of wind. Here are a few images from that spectacular evening.
The next morning, after a night in a fly-infested cabin, we returned to Silver Jack Reservoir, a place I’d visited a few years prior. Low clouds gave the landscape a misty, spooky feel, but the views were still colorful and pristine.
After a quick drive to Montrose for some lunch at the Horsefly Brewery (always one of my stops when I’m in the area), we headed back to the Ridgway area and drove up Owl Creek Pass. Again, rains rolled through the area, but this time we were rewarded with a rainbow followed by a nice sunset over a mixed palette of scrub brush and aspen surrounding the base of a towering, rocky ridge.
From here, we spent the next few days shooting in the Telluride and Ophir area, both of which were ablaze with colorful aspen. One of the highlights of our time there was the Dancing Aspen. This group of trees is a well-kept secret by folks who’ve been there. I knew the general location, but with the trees located well off the dirt road, they’d proven elusive. After several stops and short walks into the forest – and several hours of driving up and down rocky roads – we found the trees (or so we thought). They were the same shape as the images I’d seen, curved, free of graffiti, and healthy. After about 20 minutes photographing these trees, we moved on. About five minutes later – and a little further down the road – we saw another spot to investigate. This time the real Dancing Aspen awaited.
They were beautiful and pristine. It is ashamed that we have to keep places like this secret from the general public lest folks carve graffiti into and deface the tree trunks.
Last Dollar Road was bumpy and colorful, as well. The dirt road winds up and over the pass and back down to Highway 62 and onto Ridgway.
And that led us back to the well-known Dallas Divide. While I normally don’t seek out popular locations like this, there is a reason why it is so visited. The views at sunset of the regal San Juan Peaks with red and orange scrub brush and golden aspen in the foreground make it a favorite of both locals and tourists.
The mountains were stunning.
I'm already looking forward to next fall and more exploring!
Happy Travels, everyone.